Opinion: Rein in fuel economy, emissions fraud

Shannon Baker-Branstetter

Our cars and trucks could and should be getting more miles to the gallon, but instead of investing in cost-effective, fuel-saving technology, some automakers are finding ways to cheat the system.

The latest incident comes from the Ford Motor Company, which is now being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice after whistleblowers inside the Michigan-based company spoke up about concerns with compliance methods. The target of their criminal inquiry: Ford’s emissions certification process, which is used to calculate claimed fuel economy.

There's little evidence to back up the president's  assertion that rolling back gas-mileage rules will reduce the price of cars by $3,000.

We’ve been down this road before with Ford. Just five years ago, the company was forced to apologize for strikingly similar problems with their testing, after Consumer Reports alerted the EPA to inconsistencies. In the end, Ford was forced to send checks to about 200,000 owners of six vehicle models to make up the difference between the fuel economy consumers were promised and what the cars actually delivered. Other automakers have also reimbursed customers under similar circumstances, including Kia and Hyundai back in 2012.

Errors in fuel economy tests drive up fuel bills and mislead consumers, but cheating goes beyond misleading fuel economy claims.

Deceptive emissions testing practices can also be harmful to our health. A recent court-approved settlement now requires Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to update the software of several Jeep and Ram truck models because the EPA says the vehicles are emitting an illegal amount of nitrogen oxides, major contributors to smog. The most infamous case of emissions cheating is Volkswagen, whose cars were found to be emitting smog-causing pollution at rates up to 40 times higher than legal limits, leading them to pay each person who got fleeced anywhere from $5,000 to nearly $10,000 in some cases.

These kinds of cheating have become so widespread the problem risks becoming an industry-wide failure. As with other federally mandated safety and performance tests, automakers are currently responsible for assessing their own vehicles for emissions compliance and fuel economy ratings.

Yet, only about 10-15 percent of those vehicle ratings are independently verified by the EPA’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory to confirm compliance. That means most of the vehicles on our roads haven’t been tested by the EPA. Instead, we’ve been relying on automaker honesty and accuracy, which seem to be in short supply.

The automotive industry has shown it can’t be trusted to police itself, so the government needs to step up auditing and enforcement, including assessing significant fines to deter bad corporate behavior.

Cheating on emissions and fuel economy standards is especially egregious because compliance isn’t difficult. Plenty of automakers already use fuel-saving strategies — such as improved aerodynamics, more efficient engines and transmissions, and hybrid drivetrains — that could be saving consumers more fuel and money. Unfortunately, according to the latest EPA Automotive Trends Report, some automakers are only installing them in a fraction of the vehicles they sell.

The Department of Justice is still investigating Ford for criminal wrongdoing, but the EPA doesn’t need to wait to increase scrutiny and hold corporations accountable. Meanwhile, Ford and other companies should recommit to follow through on their 2011 promise to meet federal fuel economy and emission standards instead of putting their money and energy into finding ways to mislead regulators and consumers.

Shannon Baker-Branstetter is manager of cars and energy policy at Consumer Reports.